I hadn’t prepared myself for this game; I think by and large no gamer was. I had no subscription to Nintendo Power until I had learned about it from others, some time hence. Zelda II would be a hard lesson in how far from source a game can go. At the time, I had traded something like a month’s worth of game rentals to purchase it, so I resolved to make myself like it. Tricky, these Nintendo games; once they are in your house, sitting around unplayed, they are guaranteed to be loved.
Before I go on, let’s get some authorial details up front. I never made it to the credits scene to this day, so I have no idea who is credited with being the designers. Wikipedia lists Sigeru Miyamoto, which makes sense, being his creation, together with veteran Takashi Tezuka as writer, and Tadashi Sugiyama which was his first time in the director’s chair, but he would go on to prominent roles in many more of my favorite games. Akito Nakatsuka was composer of those fairly haunting melodies. Thanks for indulging me in the aside; I’ve caught myself too often venerating “the designers” when I should be humanizing them, if you take my meaning. Apologies to the rest of the team; I will reach your credits yet (and YouTube is cheating)!
So I pushed myself back into the game, and found a core of gameplay largely similar to then favorites like Super Mario Bros, SMB2, Megaman 2 and others. I remember Contra, vaguely. And that awful Terminator 2 game – ew! At the time, “side scrolling” was the latest and greatest game design. Most other designs, including Zelda 1, had forms before Nintendo polished them to perfection, but Super Mario Bros changed everything about the process of running, jumping, and scrolling the screen to the right. And at the time, it seemed a lot of the earlier game designs may be abandoned in favor of side scrolling, and Zelda II sure supported that belief.
There are parts of the game that I always felt were super cheap: the life and continue system for instance. Link has a growing life bar, which is extended by finding heart containers, and a heart stat, which drops the amount of damage he takes per hit. When the life bar is gone, he loses a life. This would be fine, except the game no longer uses a top down viewpoint. Pits represent a much larger hazard to Link than just about any attacks, while perfectly timed attacks are as effective in knocking Link into a pit now as it was Megaman back then, or any Smash Bros character today.
Nowadays, games are common with infinite lives, and Nintendo happily designs games around classic characters with no way to die, such as Kirby’s Epic Yarn. I’m still looking forward to the return of Yoshi’s Island on 3DS; even if Yoshi can’t die, he can sure lose Baby Mario in Yoshi’s Island, and with him, the game. Other parts, like the Axe wielding Lizard (Lizalfos?) in Death Mountain, complete with throwing version, proves frustrating to no end, but oh-so-satisfying when you finally have the upper hand. But I don’t think I need a game that’s easier, just one that’s more tolerant of mistakes. Super Mario Bros. had this just about right, and I think the difference is coins. There are no collectibles in Zelda II at all, only powers that slowly open the world up, or in plain functional terms, keys. Mario never used his coins for anything but getting an extra life when he had 100 of them, and they start to get quite rare and obviously trapped in the later worlds of the game. Zelda II might have stood something similar.
Even so I still like the game a lot. Jumping is liquid smooth, the controls are just about perfectly responsive, combat (against near equal opponents) is fierce and breath-taking, and the size of scope of Hyrule is huge. There’s something to be said for the arena combat engine: it is much faster, and I think more fair than slowly lining up to kill a monster in overhead view. Battles with the Knights (Darknuts?) scale up from Zelda I, and I think that may have been overkill.